It was nothing to Staniford that she should have promised Hicks to practice a song with him, and no process of reasoning could have made it otherwise. The imaginary opponent with whom he scornfully argued the matter had not a word for himself. Neither could the young girl answer anything to the cutting speeches which he mentally made her as he sat alone chewing the end of his cigar; and he was not moved by the imploring looks which his fancy painted in her face, when he made believe that she had meekly returned to offer him some sort of reparation. Why should she excuse herself? he asked. It was he who ought to excuse himself for having been in the way. The dialogue went on at length, with every advantage to the inventor.
He was finally aware of some one standing near and looking down at him. It was the second mate, who supported himself in a conversational posture by the hand which he stretched to the shrouds above their heads. "Are you a good sailor, Mr. Staniford?" he inquired. He and Staniford were friends in their way, and had talked together before this.
"Do you mean seasickness? Why?" Staniford looked up at the mate's face.
"Well, we're going to get it, I guess, before long. We shall soon be off the Spanish coast. We've had a great run so far."
"If it comes we must stand it. But I make it a rule never to be seasick beforehand."
"Well, I ain't one to borrow trouble, either. It don't run in the family. Most of us like to chance things, I chanced it for the whole war, and I come out all right. Sometimes it don't work so well."
"Ah?" said Staniford, who knew that this was a leading remark, but forbore, as he knew Mason wished, to follow it up directly.
"One of us chanced it once too often, and of course it was a woman."
"Not the risk. My oldest sister tried tamin' a tiger. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, a tiger won't tame worth a cent. But her pet was such a lamb most the while that she guessed she'd chance it. It didn't work. She's at home with mother now,—three children, of course,—and he's in hell, I s'pose. He was killed 'long-side o' me at Gettysburg. Ike was a good fellow when he was sober. But my souls, the life he led that poor girl! Yes, when a man's got that tiger in him, there ought to be some quiet little war round for puttin' him out of his misery." Staniford listened silently, waiting for the mate to make the application of his grim allegory. "I s'pose I'm prejudiced; but I do hate a drunkard; and when I see one of 'em makin' up to a girl, I want to go to her, and tell her she'd better take a real tiger out the show, at once."
The idea which these words suggested sent a thrill to Staniford's heart, but he continued silent, and the mate went on, with the queer smile, which could be inferred rather than seen, working under his mustache and the humorous twinkle of his eyes evanescently evident under his cap peak.
"I don't go round criticisn' my superior officers, and I don't say anything about the responsibility the old man took. The old man's all right, accordin' to his lights; he ain't had a tiger in the family. But if that chap was to fall overboard,—well, I don't know how long it would take to lower a boat, if I was to listen to my conscience. There ain't really any help for him. He's begun too young ever to get over it. He won't be ashore at Try-East an hour before he's drunk. If our men had any spirits amongst 'em that could be begged, bought, or borrowed, he'd be drunk now, right along. Well, I'm off watch," said the mate, at the tap of bells. "Guess we'll get our little gale pretty soon."
"Good-night," said Staniford, who remained pondering. He presently rose, and walked up and down the deck. He could hear Lydia and Hicks trying that song: now the voice, and now the flute; then both together; and presently a burst of laughter. He began to be angry with her ignorance and inexperience. It became intolerable to him that a woman should be going about with no more knowledge of the world than a child, and entangling herself in relations with all sorts of people. It was shocking to think of that little sot, who had now made his infirmity known for all the ship's company, admitted to association with her which looked to common eyes like courtship. From the mate's insinuation that she ought to be warned, it was evident that they thought her interested in Hicks; and the mate had come, like Dunham, to leave the responsibility with Staniford. It only wanted now that Captain Jenness should appear with his appeal, direct or indirect.
While Staniford walked up and down, and scorned and raged at the idea that he had anything to do with the matter, the singing and fluting came to a pause in the cabin; and at the end of the next tune, which brought him to the head of the gangway stairs, he met Lydia emerging. He stopped and spoke to her, having instantly resolved, at sight of her, not to do so.
"Have you come up for breath, like a mermaid?" he asked. "Not that
I'm sure mermaids do."
"Oh, no," said Lydia. "I think I dropped my handkerchief where we were sitting."
Staniford suspected, with a sudden return to a theory of her which he had already entertained, that she had not done so. But she went lightly by him, where he stood stolid, and picked it up; and now he suspected that she had dropped it there on purpose.
"You have come back to walk with me?"
"No!" said the girl indignantly. "I have not come back to walk with you!" She waited a moment; then she burst out with, "How dare you say such a thing to me? What right have you to speak to me so? What have I done to make you think that I would come back to—"
The fierce vibration in her voice made him know that her eyes were burning upon him and her lips trembling. He shrank before her passion as a man must before the justly provoked wrath of a woman, or even of a small girl.
"I stated a hope, not a fact," he said in meek uncandor. "Don't you think you ought to have done so?"
"I don't—I don't understand you," panted Lydia, confusedly arresting her bolts in mid-course.
Staniford pursued his guilty advantage; it was his only chance. "I gave way to Mr. Hicks when you had an engagement with me. I thought— you would come back to keep your engagement." He was still very meek.
"Excuse me," she said with self-reproach that would have melted the heart of any one but a man who was in the wrong, and was trying to get out of it at all hazards. "I didn't know what you meant—I—"
"If I had meant what you thought," interrupted Staniford nobly, for he could now afford to be generous, "I should have deserved much more than you said. But I hope you won't punish my awkwardness by refusing to walk with me."
He knew that she regarded him earnestly before she said, "I must get my shawl and hat."
"Let me go!" he entreated.
"You couldn't find them," she answered, as she vanished past him. She returned, and promptly laid her hand in his proffered arm; it was as if she were eager to make him amends for her harshness.
Staniford took her hand out, and held it while he bowed low toward her. "I declare myself satisfied."
"I don't understand," said Lydia, in alarm and mortification.
"When a subject has been personally aggrieved by his sovereign, his honor is restored if they merely cross swords."
The girl laughed her delight in the extravagance. She must have been more or less than woman not to have found his flattery delicious. "But we are republicans!" she said in evasion.
"To be sure, we are republicans. Well, then, Miss Blood, answer your free and equal one thing: is it a case of conscience?"
"How?" she asked, and Staniford did not recoil at the rusticity. This how for what, and the interrogative yes, still remained. Since their first walk, she had not wanted to know, in however great surprise she found herself.
"Are you going to walk with me because you had promised?"
"Why, of course," faltered Lydia.
"That isn't enough."
"Not enough. You must walk with me because you like to do so."
Lydia was silent.
"Do you like to do so?"
"I can't answer you," she said, releasing her hand from him.
"It was not fair to ask you. What I wish to do is to restore the original status. You have kept your engagement to walk with me, and your conscience is clear. Now, Miss Blood, may I have your company for a little stroll over the deck of the Aroostook?" He made her another very low bow.
"What must I say?" asked Lydia, joyously.
"That depends upon whether you consent. If you consent, you must say,
'I shall be very glad.'"
"And if I don't?"
"Oh, I can't put any such decision into words."
Lydia mused a moment. "I shall be very glad," she said, and put her hand again into the arm he offered.
As happens after such a passage they were at first silent, while they walked up and down.
"If this fine weather holds," said Staniford, "and you continue as obliging as you are to-night, you can say, when people ask you how you went to Europe, that you walked the greater part of the way. Shall you continue so obliging? Will you walk with me every fine night?" pursued Staniford.
"Do you think I'd better say so?" she asked, with the joy still in her voice.
"Oh, I can't decide for you. I merely formulate your decisions after you reach them,—if they're favorable."
"Well, then, what is this one?"
"Is it favorable?"
"You said you would formulate it." She laughed again, and Staniford started as one does when a nebulous association crystallizes into a distinctly remembered fact.
"What a curious laugh you have!" he said. "It's like a nun's laugh. Once in France I lodged near the garden of a convent where the nuns kept a girls' school, and I used to hear them laugh. You never happened to be a nun, Miss Blood?"
"No, indeed!" cried Lydia, as if scandalized.
"Oh, I merely meant in some previous existence. Of course, I didn't suppose there was a convent in South Bradfield." He felt that the girl did not quite like the little slight his irony cast upon South Bradfield, or rather upon her for never having been anywhere else. He hastened to say, "I'm sure that in the life before this you were of the South somewhere."
"Yes?" said Lydia, interested and pleased again as one must be in romantic talk about one's self. "Why do you think so?"
He bent a little over toward her, so as to look into the face she instinctively averted, while she could not help glancing at him from the corner of her eye. "You have the color and the light of the South," he said. "When you get to Italy, you will live in a perpetual mystification. You will go about in a dream of some self of yours that was native there in other days. You will find yourself retrospectively related to the olive faces and the dark eyes you meet; you will recognize sisters and cousins in the patrician ladies when you see their portraits in the palaces where you used to live in such state."
Staniford spiced his flatteries with open burlesque; the girl entered into his fantastic humor. "But if I was a nun?" she asked, gayly.
"Oh, I forgot. You were a nun. There was a nun in Venice once, about two hundred years ago, when you lived there, and a young English lord who was passing through the town was taken to the convent to hear her sing; for she was not only of 'an admirable beauty,' as he says, but sang 'extremely well.' She sang to him through the grating of the convent, and when she stopped he said, 'Die whensoever you will, you need to change neither voice nor face to be an angel!' Do you think— do you dimly recollect anything that makes you think—it might— Consider carefully: the singing extremely well, and—" He leant over again, and looked up into her face, which again she could not wholly withdraw.
"No, no!" she said, still in his mood.
"Well, you must allow it was a pretty speech."
"Perhaps," said Lydia, with sudden gravity, in which there seemed to
Staniford a tender insinuation of reproach, "he was laughing at her."
"If he was, he was properly punished. He went on to Rome, and when he came back to Venice the beautiful nun was dead. He thought that his words 'seemed fatal.' Do you suppose it would kill you now to be jested with?"
"I don't think people like it generally."
"Why, Miss Blood, you are intense!"
"I don't know what you mean by that," said Lydia.
"You like to take things seriously. You can't bear to think that people are not the least in earnest, even when they least seem so."
"Yes," said the girl, thoughtfully, "perhaps that's true. Should you like to be made fun of, yourself?"
"I shouldn't mind it, I fancy, though it would depend a great deal upon who made fun of me. I suppose that women always laugh at men,—at their clumsiness, their want of tact, the fit of their clothes."
"I don't know. I should not do that with any one I—"
"You liked? Oh, none of them do!" cried Staniford.
"I was not going to say that," faltered the girl.
"What were you going to say?"
She waited a moment. "Yes, I was going to say that," she assented with a sigh of helpless veracity. "What makes you laugh?" she asked, in distress.
"Something I like. I'm different from you: I laugh at what I like;
I like your truthfulness,—it's charming."
"I didn't know that truth need be charming."
"It had better be, in women, if it's to keep even with the other thing." Lydia seemed shocked; she made a faint, involuntary motion to withdraw her hand, but he closed his arm upon it. "Don't condemn me for thinking that fibbing is charming. I shouldn't like it at all in you. Should you in me?"
"I shouldn't in any one," said Lydia.
"Then what is it you dislike in me?" he suddenly demanded.
"I didn't say that I disliked anything in you."
"But you have made fun of something in me?"
"Then it wasn't the stirring of a guilty conscience when you asked me whether I should like to be made fun of? I took it for granted you'd been doing it."
"You are very suspicious."
"Yes; and what else?"
"Oh, you like to know just what every one thinks and feels."
"Go on!" cried Staniford. "Analyze me, formulate me!"
"All I come to?"
"All I have to say."
"That's very little. Now, I'll begin on you. You don't care what people think or feel."
"Oh, yes, I do. I care too much."
"Do you care what I think?"
"Then I think you're too unsuspicious."
"Ought I to suspect somebody?" she asked, lightly.
"Oh, that's the way with all your sex. One asks you to be suspicious, and you ask whom you shall suspect. You can do nothing in the abstract. I should like to be suspicious for you. Will you let me?"
"Oh, yes, if you like to be."
"Thanks. I shall be terribly vigilant,—a perfect dragon. And you really invest me with authority?"
"That's charming." Staniford drew a long breath. After a space of musing, he said, "I thought I should be able to begin by attacking some one else, but I must commence at home, and denounce myself as quite unworthy of walking to and fro, and talking nonsense to you. You must beware of me, Miss Blood."
"Why?" asked the girl.
"I am very narrow-minded and prejudiced, and I have violent antipathies. I shouldn't be able to do justice to any one I disliked."
"I think that's the trouble with all of us," said Lydia.
"Oh, but only in degree. I should not allow, if I could help it, a man whom I thought shabby, and coarse at heart, the privilege of speaking to any one I valued,—to my sister, for instance. It would shock me to find her have any taste in common with such a man, or amused by him. Don't you understand?"
"Yes," said Lydia. It seemed to him as if by some infinitely subtle and unconscious affinition she relaxed toward him as they walked. This was incomparably sweet and charming to Staniford,—too sweet as recognition of his protecting friendship to be questioned as anything else. He felt sure that she had taken his meaning, and he rested content from further trouble in regard to what it would have been impossible to express. Her tacit confidence touched a kindred spring in him, and he began to talk to her of himself: not of his character or opinions,—they had already gone over them,—but of his past life, and his future. Their strangeness to her gave certain well-worn topics novelty, and the familiar project of a pastoral career in the far West invested itself with a color of romance which it had not worn before. She tried to remember, at his urgence, something about her childhood in California; and she told him a great deal more about South Bradfield. She described its characters and customs, and, from no vantage-ground or stand-point but her native feeling of their oddity, and what seemed her sympathy with him, made him see them as one might whose life had not been passed among them. Then they began to compare their own traits, and amused themselves to find how many they had in common. Staniford related a singular experience of his on a former voyage to Europe, when he dreamed of a collision, and woke to hear a great trampling and uproar on deck, which afterwards turned out to have been caused by their bare escape from running into an iceberg. She said that she had had strange dreams, too, but mostly when she was a little girl; once she had had a presentiment that troubled her, but it did not come true. They both said they did not believe in such things, and agreed that it was only people's love of mystery that kept them noticed. He permitted himself to help her, with his disengaged hand, to draw her shawl closer about the shoulder that was away from him. He gave the action a philosophical and impersonal character by saying immediately afterwards: "The sea is really the only mystery left us, and that will never be explored. They circumnavigate the whole globe,—" here he put the gathered shawl into the fingers which she stretched through his arm to take it, and she said, "Oh, thank you!"—"but they don't describe the sea. War and plague and famine submit to the ameliorations of science,"—the closely drawn shawl pressed her against his shoulder; his mind wandered; he hardly knew what he was saying,—"but the one utterly inexorable calamity—the same now as when the first sail was spread—is a shipwreck."
"Yes," she said, with a deep inspiration. And now they walked back and forth in silence broken only by a casual word or desultory phrase. Once Staniford had thought the conditions of these promenades perilously suggestive of love-making; another time he had blamed himself for not thinking of this; now he neither thought nor blamed himself for not thinking. The fact justified itself, as if it had been the one perfectly right and wise thing in a world where all else might be questioned.
"Isn't it pretty late?" she asked, at last.
"If you're tired, we'll sit down," he said.
"What time is it?" she persisted.
"Must I look?" he pleaded. They went to a lantern, and he took out his watch and sprang the case open. "Look!" he said. "I sacrifice myself on the altar of truth." They bent their heads low together over the watch; it was not easy to make out the time. "It's nine o'clock," said Staniford.
"It can't be; it was half past when I came up," answered Lydia.
"One hand's at twelve and the other at nine," he said, conclusively.
"Oh, then it's a quarter to twelve." She caught away her hand from his arm, and fled to the gangway. "I didn't dream it was so late."
The pleasure which her confession brought to his face faded at sight of Hicks, who was turning the last pages of a novel by the cabin lamp, as he followed Lydia in. It was the book that Staniford had given her.
"Hullo!" said Hicks, with companionable ease, looking up at her.
"Been having quite a tramp."
She did not seem troubled by the familiarity of an address that incensed Staniford almost to the point of taking Hicks from his seat, and tossing him to the other end of the cabin. "Oh, you've finished my book," she said. "You must tell me how you like it, to-morrow."
"I doubt it," said Hicks. "I'm going to be seasick to-morrow. The captain's been shaking his head over the barometer and powwowing with the first officer. Something's up, and I guess it's a gale. Good-by; I shan't see you again for a week or so."
He nodded jocosely to Lydia, and dropped his eyes again to his book, ignoring Staniford's presence. The latter stood a moment breathing quick; then he controlled himself and went into his room. His coming roused Dunham, who looked up from his pillow. "What time is it?" he asked, stupidly.
"Twelve," said Staniford.
"Had a pleasant walk?"
"If you still think," said Staniford, savagely, "that she's painfully interested in you, you can make your mind easy. She doesn't care for either of us."
"Either of us?" echoed Dunham. He roused himself.
"Oh, go to sleep; go to sleep!" cried Staniford.